Why is it legal for some golf clubs to still be single sex?

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 4, 2012 15:18

Why is it legal for some golf clubs to still be single sex?

The Equality Act 2010 is the single largest piece of anti-discrimination legislation to be created in the UK. It streamlined and restated existing legislation, with the aim of making laws surrounding discrimination easier to understand and workplaces fair environments.

The majority of the Act came into effect on October 1, 2010. However, certain elements will come into force at different times to allow individuals and organisations time to prepare for the new laws. I covered it in detail late last year, and know that some clubs have been focusing on dealing with employees, visitors, suppliers and others with whom they do business. Recently, however, the area that has generated more interest than any other has been club membership and whether single-sex clubs are permitted under the Equality Act.

Changing times

In the summer of 2010, I visited the Caledonian Club in Mayfair as a guest, along with a female colleague and other business acquaintances. Unfortunately, my colleague was politely excluded from the bar and it was suggested that she should go to the ladies’ drawing room where the staff would bring her a drink. Consequently, we all went to the Garden Bar, which had no such restrictions.

Since then the Caledonian Club has changed its rules; the ladies’ drawing room is now the ‘drawing room’, although the bar is only available to members as it was previously. However, before the change, ‘members’ were exclusively male, and females were ‘associate members’ who were consequently not allowed to enter the bar. Under the new law, you cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. Having different classes of members based on sex means you would be in breach of the equality legislation. The female members of the Caledonian Club are no doubt delighted with the change – although their pleasure may be somewhat diminished by the 20 per cent-plus increase to their subscriptions to the full members’ rate.

Holding fast

In contrast to the Caledonian Club, which has changed its rules, the media has focused on a number of golf clubs that have remained, for now at least, single-sex clubs. These clubs are either all male or all female and interested parties have asked how they can remain single sex when the Caledonian Club and others have felt obliged to change.

Media interest perhaps started when Royal St Georges Golf Club’s right to host last summer’s Open was questioned following its decision to maintain a single-sex policy. Royal St Georges has a reputation for exclusivity and, among other policies, its female golfers are apparently permitted to play only as the guests of members despite suggestions that this should change. But while there may be a moral obligation, is there a legal one?

Letter of the law

The Equality Act affects how you behave towards members, associate members and guests. In equality law, an ‘association’ is defined as a group of 25 or more members with rules to control how someone becomes a member, involving a genuine selection process. If you meet the definition of an association you would be eligible for the exceptions available under the act for single-characteristic associations. Under the exceptions, a club or association with defined selection criteria is not contravening the legislation by allowing membership based on a single-protected characteristic, for example sex.

For instance, a golf club with 1,000 members has an application process stipulating that a potential member must be nominated by two existing members or, if not already known to two members, by playing a round of golf with the committee members, two of whom become the proposer and seconder. Because the club has more than 25 members and a defined application and selection process, it is a defined association and can offer membership to people who share a single-defined characteristic. Therefore, should this golf club decide to be an all-male golf club, it would not be in breach of the legislation.

There are plenty of other clubs and associations that are single sex, including all-female ones. However, if you are a mixed-sex club, you may not discriminate against members on the basis of sex or any other prohibited categories, such as race or religion. Therefore, if the club mentioned above changed its rules and welcomed both male and female members, it could not prescribe that lady members could not play after 4pm. This is why the Caledonian Club had to change its policy because while it was not a single-sex club, by not allowing ladies into the bar it discriminated between male and female members on the basis of sex.

Another aspect that causes confusion is that if, under the exceptions, you are a single-sex club then you can only determine membership based on that characteristic, that is sex. You have to comply with all the other equality requirements, for example, you would not be allowed to restrict membership to male members under the age of 70 as that is age discriminatory.

I understand that St Andrews, one of the most well-known, men-only for the clubhouse, golf clubs, has written to all its members recommending that the club admits women. It clearly sees that admitting female members will be part of the future of golf and would help safeguard the long-term success of St Andrews. However, some females in female-only organisations have pointed out that sexism in former all-male clubs is more prevalent after admitting female golfers. It is therefore imperative that once you become a mixed-sex club, all members are bought into the concept and there is no undercurrent of sexual prejudice. On the other hand, Royal St Georges has stated that it has no plans to change; no doubt its focus has been on delivering a first-class Open and the issue of the admission policy will be dealt with in the future.

Whatever your policy, you must make certain that you do not breach the new equality laws, which are fairly complex. Should you have any doubts, consider taking professional advice.

Adrian Houstoun is a partner at chartered accountant Kingston Smith LLP

The information contained in this article was correct at the time it was sent to Golf Club Management magazine, which was before the date it was published on this website

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 4, 2012 15:18
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2 Comments

  1. IHateFeminism August 17, 19:25

    Why is it legal for women to open women only nightclubs, restaurants, taxi firms, festivals, why is it the last male only residencies are gentleman clubs and golf clubs, why aren’t we allowed any exclusivity, why are we seen as wanting to over do women yet they’re the ones opening exclusive places for women only

    Reply to this comment
  2. IHateFeminism August 17, 19:26

    Why is it legal for women to open women only nightclubs, restaurants, taxi firms, festivals, why is it the last male only residencies are gentleman clubs and golf clubs, why aren’t we allowed any exclusivity, why are we seen as wanting to over do women yet they’re the ones opening exclusive places for women only.

    Reply to this comment
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